Parax the Hunter had always despised vanity in others, but he knew now just how stealthily it could creep up on a man. The thought was as cold and bitter as the wind blowing over the snowcapped peaks of the Druagh mountains. From his saddlebag Parax drew a woolen cap, which he pulled over his thinning white hair. His old eyes gazed up at the majesty of Caer Druagh, the oldest mountain, but he could no longer make out the sharp, jagged ridges or the distant stands of pine. All he could see now was the misty whiteness of the peaks against the harsh, grainy blue of the sky.
His weary pony stumbled, and the old man grabbed at the pommel of his saddle. He patted the pony’s neck and gently drew rein. The beast was eighteen years old. She had always been strong and steadfast, a mount to be trusted. Not anymore. Like Parax she was finding this one hunt too many.
The old man sighed. At thirty he had been at the peak of his powers, one of the foremost trackers in all the lands of the Keltoi. It did not make him boastful, for he knew he had been gifted with keen eyes and an intuitive mind. His own father, himself a great hunter and tracker, had taught him well. At five the young Parax could identify over thirty different animals by track alone: the leaping otter, the ambling badger, the cunning fox, and many more. His talent had been almost mystical. Men said he could read a man’s life in the blade of grass crushed beneath a boot heel. That was nonsense, of course, but Parax had smiled upon hearing it, not recognizing the birth of vanity in that smile. What was true, however, was his ability to read a man from the trail he left; where he made his camp and placed his fire showed how well or little he understood the wilderness, how often he rested his mount, how swiftly he moved, how patient he was in the hunt. All these things spoke of a man’s character, and once Parax understood his prey’s character, he would find him no matter how cleverly he hid his trail.
By the time he was thirty-five Parax’s fame had spread to the lands of the Perdii, whose king, Alea, recruited him to the royal household. Even then he did not allow undue pride to color his personality. At fifty, in the service of Connavar the King, he allowed himself what he considered to be a quiet satisfaction in his achievements. Although his eyes were marginally less keen, his reading of trails still seemed almost magical to those who watched him. Even at sixty he could still follow a trail as well as any man, for by then he had a lifetime of acquired skills to give him an edge over younger men. Or so he believed, and in that belief vanity grew like a hidden weed unnoticed in his heart. Now past seventy, he had known for some years he was no longer preeminent, no longer even competent. The knowledge hurt the old man, but not as badly as the conceit that made him deny its truth to the man he loved most: the king.
Parax had served Connavar for over twenty years, from the day the young warrior had rescued him from the slave lines of Stone and brought him back to the towering mountains of Druagh. He had ridden beside him when the youngster became laird, and then war chief, and finally the first high king in hundreds of years. He had been beside him on that bloody day at Cogden Field when the invincible army of Stone had been crushed by the might of Connavar’s Iron Wolves. He shivered again. Connavar the King had trusted Parax, and now age and increasing infirmity had made the old man betray that trust.
“Find the boy Bane,” the king had said, “before the hunters kill him—or he kills them.”
Parax had looked into the king’s odd-colored eyes, one green and one tawny gold, and he had longed to admit the truth, to say simply, “My skills are gone, my friend. I cannot help you.”
But he could not. The words clung within his throat on talons of false pride. He was one of the king’s trusted advisers. He was Parax, the greatest hunter in the known world, a living legend. The moment he voiced the truth he would become merely a useless old man to be discarded and forgotten. Instead he had bowed awkwardly and ridden from Old Oaks, his mind in torment, panic lying heavily upon him. His fading eyes could no longer read the trails, and he had been forced to follow the hunting pack for days, hoping they would lead him to the young outlaw.
Then had come the final ignominy. He had lost the hunting pack. Twenty riders!
Parax had wept then, tears of bitterness. Once he could have tracked a sparrow in flight; now he could not find the spoor of twenty horses. He had been following about a mile behind them but had dozed in the saddle. His paint pony, tired and thirsty, had scented water and pulled away from the trail, wandering to the east. Parax had awoken with a start as the pony climbed a steep, wooded hillside. The old man had almost fallen from the saddle. Heavy clouds had obscured the sun, and Parax had had no idea where he was. The pony had led him to a bubbling stream, where Parax had dismounted.
His back ached, and his mouth was dry. Kneeling, he cupped water into his hands and drank.
“Outlived my usefulness,” he said aloud. The pony whinnied and stamped its foot. “You know how old I am?” he asked his mount. “Seventy-two. I once trailed a robber for three weeks. Caught him on the high slopes, up in the rocks. The king paid me twenty silver coins and named me the prince of trackers.” Removing his old woolen cap, he splashed water to his face and beard. He was hungry. There were muslin-wrapped slices of smoked bacon in his pack, along with black bread and a small round of cheese. He wanted to unpack them and prepare a fire, but then the late-afternoon sun broke through the clouds, and he dozed, his head resting on a round rock.
He dreamed of better days before his eyes failed, days of laughter and joy after the young king had driven the Stone soldiers from the northland. Laughter and joy, except for the king himself. The Demon King, they called him, because of his ferocity and because men recalled the terrible revenge he had taken for his wife’s murder. Connavar, then a mere Rigante laird, had single-handedly wiped out the murderer’s village, burning it to the ground and killing men, women, and children. From that day on Parax had never heard him laugh, had never seen joy in his eyes.
In his dream Parax saw the king, standing in the moonlight on the battlements of Old Oaks. Only now there were ghosts floating around them both, a young woman with long dark hair and a pale face and a giant of a man with a braided yellow beard. They were reaching out to the king. His scarred features paled as he saw them. Parax knew them both. The girl was his dead wife, Tae, and the man was his stepfather, Ruathain.
“You broke your promise, my husband,” said the ghost of Tae.
Connavar bowed his head. “Oh, Tae,” he said, “I am so ashamed.”
“Will you still take me riding?”
Connavar gave out a groan and fell to his knees. Parax stood silently by, knowing the cause of the king’s grief. He had promised to ride with Tae to a distant lake but on his way home had met with a woman he once had loved. Arian had held to him, and he had bedded her. Hours later, upon his return to Old Oaks, he discovered that Tae had ridden out with Ruathain and had been killed during a surprise attack by men who had a blood feud with his stepfather. Connavar remained on his knees, head bowed. The giant figure of Ruathain loomed over him. “Family is everything, Conn. I thought I taught you that.”
“You did, Big Man. I never forgot it. I have looked after Wing and Bran, and Mam.”
Connavar’s face grew angry. “I regret that. But I could not bear to see Arian again. My lust for her killed Tae—and destroyed my life!”
“You made a mistake, Conn. All men do. But Bane was blameless, and he has grown to manhood without a father. He watched his mother, grief-stricken and broken, fade away and die lonely. He deserved better from you, Conn. You should have acknowledged him. It is not as if there was any doubt. He looks like you, even down to the eyes of green and gold. And because you shunned him, all men shunned him.”
The dream was terribly real, and Parax wanted to reach out and comfort the king, who seemed stricken by grief and ashamed. Then the vision faded, replaced by a stand of trees, branches gently swaying in the wind. Then—for the merest heartbeat—the old hunter saw a veiled woman standing close by. She was leaning on a staff. A huge black crow flew down from the trees and perched on her shoulder. Parax was instantly terrified. For this, he knew, was the dreaded Morrigu, the Seidh goddess of mischief and death.
He awoke with a start and cried out. He could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest. He gazed around at the tree line, but there was no veiled woman, no black crow. The smell of sizzling bacon came to him, and he thought he must still be dreaming. Turning his head, he saw a man squatting by a fire, holding a long-handled pan over the flames. The man glanced across at him and grinned.
“You were having a bad dream, old man,” he said amiably. It was getting dark, and the wind was chilly. Parax moved closer to the fire and wrapped his green cloak tightly around his thin shoulders. He stared hard at the young man. He was beardless, his long blond hair tied back at the nape of his neck, a thin braid in the style of the Sea Wolves hanging from his right temple. Dressed in a hunting shirt of pale green, with a sleeveless brown leather jerkin, buckskin trews, and knee-length riding boots, he wore no sword but was turning the bacon with a hunting knife of bright iron.
“You are the Wolfshead Bane,” said Parax.
“And you are Parax, the king’s hunter.”
“I am—and proud of it.”
Bane laughed. “Men say you are the greatest tracker of all.”
“So they say,” agreed the old man.
“Not anymore, Parax,” the youngster said, with a rueful smile. “I have been watching you. You’ve crossed my trail three times in the last two days. The third time I left a clear print for you to see, and you rode straight past it.”
Parax leaned in closer. Now he could see the odd-colored eyes, one green and one tawny gold. Just like his father, thought the old man. Just like the king. He seemed older than his seventeen years, harder, more knowing than he should be. “Are you planning to kill me?” he asked.
“You want me to?”
“There would be a kind of poetry in it,” said Parax. “The first time I met your father, he was around your age. He had come to kill me. I had tracked him for days with a group of Perdii warriors. Oh, but he was clever and killed seven of the hunters. And he did everything to throw me from the trail. Great skill he had for a young man. I tracked him over rock and through water. He almost fooled me one time. His tracks disappeared below the branch of an oak. He had hauled himself up, then run along the branch and leapt to a nearby tree. But I was not old and useless then. I found him.”
“So why didn’t he kill you?”
Parax shrugged. “Didn’t know then, don’t know now. We shared a meal, and he rode off to join the army of Stone. When next I saw him, he was the man who had killed the Perdii king, and I was roped and tied and ready for deportation to the slave mines. He recognized me and saved me. Now here I am with his son. So, are you going to kill me?”
“I have nothing against you, old man,” said Bane. “I’d just as soon let you live.”
“Then you’d better share that bacon,” said Parax. “Otherwise I might starve to death.”
“Of course. The food is yours, after all.” Bane speared a strip of bacon on his hunting knife, then passed the pan across to the hunter. They ate in silence. The bacon was full of flavor but a little too salty, and Parax moved back to the stream for a drink.
“How did you evade the hunters?” he asked as he returned to the fire.
“It wasn’t difficult. They didn’t really want to find me. Can’t say I blame them. Most are married men who wouldn’t want to leave behind young widows.”
“You are a cocky whoreson,” snapped Parax.
“Indeed I am. But I am also very good with sword or knife. I have fought my battles, Parax. Twice against Sea Raiders and three times against Norvii outlaws.” He tapped the thick gold clasp around his left wrist. “Uncle Braefar himself awarded me this for courage. It should have been awarded by the king, but that would have been too embarrassing.”
Parax heard the rising anger in the young man’s voice and changed the subject. “So why did you allow me to find you?”
Bane laughed. “You didn’t find me, Parax. I found you. I felt sorry for you. It must be hard to lose one’s skills.”
“Aye, it is hard, though I doubt you’ll live long enough to know how hard it is. So why are we having this meeting?”
The young man did not answer at first. He carried the pan to the stream, washed it, dried it with grass, then returned it to the old man’s pack. Then he stretched out by the fire. “I was intrigued. I know why Uncle Braefar’s men were after me but not why the king’s hunter should have been sent or, indeed, why you did not ride with the other hunters.”
“The king does not want to see you dead,” said Parax.
Bane gave a scornful laugh. “Is that so? My father does not want to see me dead. How touching. In all my life he has not spoken to me except when I won the Beltine Race and he awarded the prize. ‘Well done.’ In my seventeen years they are the only two words I have heard my father speak. And now I am to believe he is concerned for my welfare?”
“I cannot speak for his concerns. He asked me to find you. Gave me a bag of gold to give you.”
“A bag of gold? What a sweet man!” Bane spit into the fire.
“He is a good man,” Parax said softly.
“Be careful, old man,” warned Bane. “I am not known to be overly forgiving. I have killed two men in the past five days. A third will not trouble my conscience.”
“My understanding is that they spoke slightingly of your dead mother, then waylaid you after you had beaten them with your fists. A trial would most certainly have seen you acquitted.”
“And this bag of gold is to aid my trial?”
“No,” admitted Parax. “It is to help you once you have left Rigante lands. The men you killed were kin to the general Fiallach. He has sworn a blood oath to fight you. The king does not want either of you hurt.”
Bane laughed, the sound merry and full of humor. “He doesn’t want Uncle Fiallach killed, you mean?”